Raymond Soltysek's Blog

“Coriolanus”, NT Live broadcast, GFT, 4/2/14

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on February 5, 2014


Wow.  That was unbelievably wonderful.

Coriolanus’ isn’t a play I know that well: I think I read it once at university and subjected  sixth year pupils to it a couple of times.  I’ve never been a fan of the Roman plays and lumped this in with them; but, oh my goodness, is it something else – at least in this guise. What strikes me so much is the similarity between it and the great tragedies: I keep hearing echoes of Macbeth, especially in the scene where Coriolanus reveals his identity to Aufidius, or of King Lear’s rejection by his daughters in Coriolanus’ rejection of Menenius.  My pal and I wonder when it was written, where it comes in the chronology, and we reckon it feels so fully formed it must come later; indeed it does.  I’d forgotten that it was written in 1608, after the great tragedies.  Seems old Will decided to recycle the best bits of his greatest hits.

It is superb.  Stripped bare in the tiny Donmar Warehouse, it is staged as minimalist as possible, ladders, chairs and painted boxes on the floor.  Tom Hiddleston takes the lead, and he’s a revelation.  Once more, that naturalistic speech predominates; he makes Shakespearean language sound the most natural thing in the world to come out of your mouth, and it’s accompanied by the most 21st century looks and gestures, shrugs,  ‘whatevers’ and ‘whatyouonabouts’ that bring a lot of laughs of recognition.  He is charming, ruthless, sentimental, roaringly heroic, brutal and sexy by turn, and, as the director Josie Rourke says, we absolutely believe him as a young soldier, husband, father and son trying to make his way in the world.  His raw energy and brute force dominate the stage, and it’s hardly surprising that Rourke uses that physicality in a female-fan-pleasing shower scene that is a cross between Alien and a Herbal Essences advert, Hiddleston stripped to the waist, washing the blood from his open wounds, a red fountain soaking the stage as he shakes his head.

He emotes very well, appearing to be able to shed a tear on tap or wind himself up to a fury at the stupidity of the common man; never has fascism seemed so attractive.  It’s helped, of course, by the venality of the Tribunes, played by Eliot Levy and Helen Schlesinger as a couple of union officials on the make and a mission.  Mark Gatiss is an excellent Menenius, all camp knowingness and laser-like insight and while Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia has little to do, she does it very convincingly; known for her work in Borgen, she says in the pre-show interview how much it echoed with her.

However, pick of the bunch bar Hiddleston is Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ devoted mother.  She is a little sing-songy in the first act as she happily declares how she’d sacrifice her son for a good name and a medal or two; however, her appeal to Coriolanus’ better nature as he prepares to ravage Rome is gob-smackingly good, wringing the tears from her son and the audience alike.  She invests it with as much humanity as I’ve ever seen on stage, and it had me in bits.

So – I’ve found a new favourite play.  When I’m asked which my favourite Shakespeares are, I’m now going to say ‘The Big Four, The Tempest and Coriolanus’; and, in some respects, ‘Coriolanus’ is the best of them all.  There wasn’t a single moment I didn’t believe, not a single character I didn’t buy.  I loved it.

“Hamlet”, NT live broadcast, Cineworld, 22/10/13

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on October 23, 2013

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet

My second NT Live and second dose of Rory Kinnear in a month, my fifth visit to a theatre production in five weeks, my third Big Will Big Tragedy this year: I think I’m becoming cultured.

This is a rebroadcast of Kinnear’s turn as Hamlet from two years ago, and it’s very, very good.  It should probably be compared against  David Tennant’s similarly t-shirted shot at the RSC  from 2009: from what I remember of that (and I’ll need to watch it again), Kinnear’s is a more naturalistic interpretation: while Tenant goes for the moody, reflective, actory approach, Kinnear’s ‘to be or not to be’ seems to pop up out of nowhere, unheralded and unbidden.  There are similarities though:  I like the coward soliloquy ‘(I would have fatted all the region’s kites with this slave’s offal’ – what a fabulous line that is) and each delivers it with venomous self-loathing.

Kinnear’s naturalism comes from his apparent lack of presence: some commentators have described him as looking like a middle manager in some regional company, and it’s easy to see what they mean.  He underplays beautifully, relying on cyncially-raised smirky eyebrows and that blank look of astonishment his father was such a master of: indeed, during his mad scene with Polonius, he mugs to the audience on a couple of occasions and looks exactly like Roy.  It’s this touching  ‘everyman’ appeal that made him so successful as Iago and in this allows us to engage with a real, live young man rather than a spoiled Prince who, in some versions, has come across as more than a little hysterical.

Roy Kinnear doing an impression of his son.

Roy Kinnear doing an impression of his son.

The production does something unusual with the plot too.  Of course, the standard reading of the play is that Hamlet has a thing for his mum, and delays so long in avenging his dad because the old bastard scared the life out of him and he’s actually quite pleased he was bumped off: after all, it’s only when Gertrude is poisoned that he gets up off his arse to do something about his uncle.  Here, though, that is reversed.  James Laurenson  (my goodness, as soon as I see his face, I’m taken back to watching ‘Boney’, the somewhat culturally insensitive but really well made Australian series about an Aboriginal detective, in the living room of my parents’ house, eating toasted rolls in the evening in 1973 ) plays the ghost as an avuncular, gentle and altogether paternal figure, while Claire Higgins’ Gertrude is a middle-aged lush poured into a leather skirt two sizes too small and ten years too young for her.  Thus, Hamlet really is avenging his father, and his anger at his mother is not that she has let her son down, but that she actually has let her husband and herself down.   That’s new: not a jot of the old Oedipus here.

There are irritations that are inherent in Hamlet for me.  The ‘swear’ scene after the ghosts’ consultation with Hamlet is tedious and a bit daft – I never saw the need for the ghostly incantations from underground – and of course, one has to  suspend disbelief to accept that  two young men who had in one scene been at each others’ throat would in the next agree to a playful duel.  But that’s  all part of the politics of the court, and Kinnear makes that absolutely clear.  Possibly the most memorable Hamlet I’ve ever seen was a performance in Russian at the old Tron in, oh, 1985? What was so good about that was that, freed from listening to the words, the audience was able to concentrate on the maneuverings of the characters around the politics of the court, and it was played as a chess match, characters moving across a checkered marble floor in and out of spotlights.  The Machiavellian atmosphere came across brilliantly, and this production achieves something similar, though not so vivid, with its Secret Service agents sneaking around the place, talking into their microphones, adjusting their earpieces as they round up the players and march them off at gunpoint.

The other characters are solid without leaving me feeling gobsmacked.  Claudius is a great part, and Patrick Malahide is a great actor, but, for some reason, he feels a bit like a double glazing magnate rather than a king.  Ruth Negga is a lovely, winsome Ophelia, though it’s a part I’ve never really warmed to.  Alex Lanipekim’s Laertes isn’t quite the full monty – there’s just a little swagger lacking, I feel.  Best of the rest, I think, is David Calder’s Polonius; wandered, puffed up and verbose, he is genuinely funny and a genuine loss.

Oh, and the final sword fight was very realistic for a change, which was a pleasant surprise.

So I liked this, a lot.  Despite being delayed and arriving a little late to find myself in amongst a school party (and perfectly behaved they were too) and despite a glitch in the streaming that almost ruined the coward soliloquy, this was a fine production.   That’s  three of the big four done by NT Live recently:  I wonder who’ll be doing Lear for them next?

“Othello”, NT live broadcast, GFT, 29/9/13

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on September 29, 2013

Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello

Bloody hell, that was wonderful.

‘Othello’ is a play I love (like all Will’s biggie tragedies).  I had doubts, I have to say, about Adrian Lester playing the lead.  I’ve never seen a production in which Othello hasn’t been played by someone built like a brick shithouse and so handsome every woman in the audience – and a few guys too – go weak at the knickers as soon as he comes onstage.  The Hollywood version of a few years back, with Branagh as Iago, had Lawrence Fishburne doing his very best Matrix voice to pretty good effect, but what was best about his performance was the sheer damned predatory sexiness of him.  Lester, meanwhile, has been in ‘Hustle’ and (feel free to spit or laugh derisively) ‘Bonekickers’.

But he’s fantastic; absolutely magnificent.  He has all the suaveness and superiority he needs at the beginning, charming Desdemona and the collected worthies of Venice (The Duke’s  “I think this tale would win my daughter too” raises a perfectly timed laugh, one of surprisingly many), and his barely suppressed contempt for the racist insults thrown at him is terrific, restrained acting.  Contrasted with that, his descent into incoherent jealousy is absolutely believable – I’ve never really gone for the epilepsy scene before now, but I buy this, absolutely – and it makes sense in a way it never has before.  Even his final speech, believable as it is in its pain, also has the sneaky, self-serving edge of a man looking towards his posthumous reputation that is fresh and new and logical.  A wonderful performance.

As is that delivered by Rory Kinnear, who seems to be doing just about everything at the moment, from the wonderful ‘Southcliffe’ to the rather less flattering Count Arthur Strong and a ton of 007 video games.  At first, it took a while to tune into his accent, a Cockney spit that seemed to be fractured in its rhythms, but as the voice grew on me, so did his malevolent impact.  More than any other production I’ve seen, Iago’s motives here lie in sexual jealousy (perhaps a little overplayed given the textual evidence for it) and his horrifyingly convincing charm once more raises laughs, though this time much more uncomfortable, as he shrugs a ‘what did I do?’ to the audience at Othello’s idiotic gullibility.

The setting is hugely effective, and the featurette explains the care taken to recreate the ennui of a garrison camp; the effect is to update the tale to one from Bhagdhad’s Green Zone or Helmand province.  I once had lunch with a researcher who told me horrific tales of the rape of nurses, journalists and aid workers by Allied troops in the Middle Eastern theatre, knocking on the head claims that Abu Ghraib and the rape and murder of Abeer Qassim Al-Janabi are perpetrated by ‘bad apples’.  There is clearly a sense here of that kind of hyper-sexualised machismo, Bianca the whore a potent image of the disposability of women: a military adviser to the play casually admits that boredom and alcohol are major factors in the life of a garrison.  So it perfectly believable that Othello would see all this happening around him and be easily convinced his wife was involved somehow, making perfect sense of the lines

“I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known”

There are a few minor, minor issues.  Given such two towering performances at the core of the play, light tends to fall harshly on others.  Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) doesn’t quite convince at times (she’s a little tomboyish in denim), and nor does posh-boy Cassio (Jonathan Bailey).  Tom Robertson is initially great as woosy Roderigo, but the foppishness wears a little thin. But these are difficult parts to get totally right anyway when such a central dynamic occupies the stage like a whirlwind. There are also a couple of tedious extended scenes:  the arrival on Cyprus goes on a bit for instance.

But with much of the action thereafter taking place in the interiors of portakabins, the claustrophobia that the play demands has never been quite so stifling, and that results in the most visceral, believable murder I’ve ever seen on stage.  The level and extent of domestic violence meted out to Desdemona is cringingly difficult to watch and perfectly captures the horror of what is done to Desdemona, Lester and Vinall nailing it to the point where I was squirming in my seat.  Like Branagh’s ‘Macbeth‘, the language sounds and the characters feel surprisingly modern, and I sensed I was watching the kind of brutality that goes on in married couple’s bedrooms all over the country, ending up  in A&E or the morgue.  ‘Othello’, always cited as the most domestic of Shakespeare’s plays, has never felt so uncomfortably so.

Next stop is a revisit to the wonderful ‘Dunsinane‘ and then – hopefully joy of joys – Kinnear’s NT Live ‘Hamlet’ rebroadcast later in the month.  Cannae wait.

“Macbeth”, NT live broadcast, GFT, 20/7/13

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on July 21, 2013


I’ve written about Macbeth before, about my search for the perfect version of my favourite play.  Is this it?  No.  Is it the best ever production I’ve seen, though?  In many ways, yes.

Let’s run through the many plusses.  Branagh is wonderful as Macbeth.  Another favourite, Patrick Stewart, delivered it with that Shakespearean gravitas you’d expect from him, all deep resonance and perfect enunciation.  Branagh’s is a much more human, naturalistic delivery: he makes Shakespeare sound like ordinary speech most of the time, and that takes enormous skill.  His reading of the character is quite superb.  In the pre-show interview with co-director Rob Ashford, he stresses the relationship between Macbeth and Lady M, that there was good there before they chose the path of evil, and that they do what they do for each other.  Branagh gets that spot on.

And Alex Kingston is perhaps the best Lady M I’ve ever seen.   She’s an extraordinary actress, but she’s associated with a particular type of role, and I wondered how she’d get what I was looking for in the character.  I have always seen Lady M as her husband’s  victim, as a woman doing what she has to do for the love of her life and being made to suffer  monumentally as a result: I have absolutely no time whatsoever for the one-dimensional Victorian psycho Jezebel so many bone idle teachers settle for when they study the play with youngsters who deserve so much more kaleidoscopic a view: I might say more about that in the future.  But, with that focus on the relationship, I do indeed see a very different character.  The ‘unsex me here’ speech is wonderfully done as an appeal for help in doing what she knows she cannot do, the words surprising the hell out of her when they come out her mouth, then growing in confidence as she picks up the theme; a dark version of a ‘God help me’ moment.  Furthermore, dashing her baby’s brains out has never felt so anguished; this is not an image that comes easily to her mind, and she wrenches it out from her belly knowing full well the mere utterance of  it will damn her, a price she is willing to pay for her husband.  This is the most believable version I’ve ever seen.  I’ve always said I’d marry Lady Macbeth; in this case, I should be so lucky.

Best Macduff too.  I’ve always loved that part; it has so little stage time, and yet is so powerful and pivotal.  It’s the part I’d want to play.  The scene where he is told of the murder of his wife and children should be raw: well, Ray Fearon rips the heart out of the entire audience.  It’s the most  primeval wail of utter anguish I’ve ever witnessed, preceded by a swirl of disbelief and absolute hopelessness.  It is the best of several stunningly tragic moments: the sleepwalking scene, the murder of Lady Macduff (a supernaturally beautiful Rosalie Craig), Macbeth’s reaction to his wife’s death: this is a play that goes for the emotional jugular.

Best staging?  Check.  A disused church in Manchester is turned into a muddy, bloody battlefield, the action played up and down the central aisle, stabbing its way through the audience.  It is absolutely fitting, bringing the actors up close and personal with the audience.  It just beats Patrick Stewart’s version of a disused hospital.  Perhaps the best witches too, though that wasn’t a unanimous decision in my party.  I like their charred appearance, their fractured diction and mangled vowels, their jerky epileptic marionette movement; they are like figures from some nightmarish silhouette show.  And I like too the way Kingston echoes that in the sleepwalking scene.

So, all good – nay, great.  Just a couple of problems.  Before  Duncan’s murder, I get exactly what Ashford and Branagh are doing with the couple, and their interdependence is palpable.  And that bond is brought back to the fore in the ‘she should have died hereafter’ speech, Branagh choosing to deliver it with all the intensity of passion for his dead wife that most productions eschew.  So that leaves a disconnect.  What is the motivation for Macbeth distancing himself after Duncan’s murder, the separation that dooms them both?  It’s as if the Macbeth of the first and last third is replaced by some Kagemusha-type changeling, a Doppelganger who unravels the couple’s relationship and reign.  What’s very convincing is Lady M’s growing astonishment at the sudden waywardness of her husband’s mental state, though the “Nought’s had…” speech at the beginning of Act 3 scene 2 doesn’t quite work for me: it should be a soliloquy and therefore about her, but becomes a description of Macbeth as she watches him fall to pieces.  And why that happens just doesn’t really make sense to me.  So the reading is brave and unusual – but perhaps a little disjointed.

Maybe that’s because I’m looking for my own reading, my Macbeth.  I see the whole play as twin journeys of revelation: the revelation of Macbeth as ‘fair is foul’ and Lady M as ‘foul is fair’.  The theme of duplicity, established so early and hammered home through image after image and character after character, means, I think, that Shakespeare wants us to question everything and everybody we see in this play.  So when we see Lady M apparently manipulating her husband into  murder by slagging off his manhood – well, think again, folks, about what just might really be going on.

And that brings me to another slight problem for me with this production.  I’m not keen on much of the first act – the reporting of the battle to Duncan, the ‘Bellona’s Bridegroom’ stuff – being jettisoned for an action sequence in the rain (everyone’s taking a leaf out of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the West End, and pretty soon live rain will be de rigueur for any production, even ones set wholly in a drawing room).  I think we need all those words to establish Macbeth as the ‘fair’, we need to hear how he is perceived so that we can say, ‘uh-huh, something fishy about this bloke here…’

I could go on and on about my theory for hours (and have done), but it is just a theory, just one possible interpretation as dubious as any other.  Well, nowhere near as dubious as the teacher of a friend’s son I tutored a few years back, who told his class the play was all about ambition, nothing else, and that the greatest playwright the world has ever seen wrote a play in which one of the most complex characters theatre has ever seen had only that one ‘fatal flaw’.  Well, thought my friend’s son, okay, but that doesn’t make sense, because if he’s just ambitious, why does everything go to shit after he’s crowned?  Upon writing a speculative but thoughtful essay postulating that perhaps Macbeth might actually also lack a bit of self belief in his abilities as king, his teacher gave him 7/25 and wrote ‘Didn’t you listen to me in class?’ at the end of the paper.  Yes he did listen, sir: he also had an independent thought while he was doing so.  And you crushed it.

So it’s hugely refreshing to see a production that takes a different, more complex approach – Ashford explicitly puts the ambition theme aside –  that sees both characters as quintessentially human beings, complex, loving, capable of supreme stupidity and, ultimately, evil.  So, a big, big round of applause.  Almost, almost my perfect Macbeth.

“Shutter Island” Shakespeare: “Macbeth”, The Tramway, 22/6/12

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on June 22, 2012
Link to Tramway

Alan Cumming in “Macbeth”

Whoa.  If David Hayman’s recent  “King Lear” was a bit out there, this is somewhere the far side of Azerbaijan.

I love “Macbeth”. It is probably my favourite play of all time, and I have some extraordinarily odd views on it that I may share in the future that revolve around me wanting to marry Lady Macbeth.  As such, productions almost always disappoint, and I’ve seen some real clunkers in my time; one of the most shockingly bad starred Mark McManus.  Selling bucketloads of tickets on the back of his “Taggart” starring role, he was obviously a TV actor totally out of his depth on stage, to the extent that, at one point, he was delivering his “vaulting ambition” soliloquy from behind his cloak, a lá Dick Dastardly.  One of the best I’ve ever seen was Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in London a few years back, which was filmed and broadcast on BBC a couple of Christmases ago; it had some real vivacity about it, Stewart was terrific and the director Rupert Goold did something with the “hold enough” line that totally transformed the play.  Great stuff – but still a nagging feeling I hadn’t yet seen my perfect “Macbeth”.

This isn’t it either, but then again it isn’t really “Macbeth”; what it is is a stunning re-imagining of it and an outstandingly impressive performance by Alan Cumming.  Here, Macbeth is locked up in an asylum, reliving the horror of his rise and fall day after day, all the characters of the tragedy part of his interior landscape.  Cumming’s performance is a tremendous feat of memory if nothing else – he must recite 2/3 of the text – and he differentiates between the characters extraordinarily well, despite, on a couple of occasions, it slipping into caricature, such as Duncan’s mangled-vowelled English aristocrat.  There are moments of real insight and brilliance – of course the “if it t’were done” scene should end in steamy, angry sex, “bring forth men-children only” taking on a whole new aspect as the two characters played by one actor writhe on the bed.  I also liked the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Cumming’s Lady Macbeth luxuriating in a bath with a gin and tonic to give it a lightness I think is totally appropriate; and Macduff’s reaction to the slaughter of his wife and children should be a heart-stopping moment, and Cumming pretty much nails it.

What I especially liked are the moments of real vulnerability which Cumming does so, so well.  Tearing himself apart after Duncan’s murder, a silent doctor and orderly come in to pacify him and put him ever so gently to bed, a scene echoed several times through the play.  Thus, there is a real sense of a mind in utter agony, too fragile to cope with the enormity of what has been done, what has been lost and won.

The staging is fantastic too.  Particularly effective are the three video screens which ostensibly show the CCTV security footage of Macbeth’s room / cell.  However, they bring Cumming’s three witches eerily to life.  In addition, they are used for spooky moments of dissassociation, such as when Banquo’s ghost appears on stage but is absent from the footage, or when the sleeping Cumming, alone on stage, is watched by a sinister suited figure on-screen.  Credit also has to go to a brilliant ambient soundtrack, including a beautiful solo cello.

There are a couple of oddities.  That silent doctor and orderly are a great conceit at the beginning, mouthing unheard diagnoses beneath the discordant noise that fills Macbeth’s head.  I wondered, therefore, what the purpose of having them interact with Macbeth’s world in the final Act was: they take on parts, discuss Lady Macbeth, speak with Macbeth.  I have to say, I didn’t understand the need for that change.

But, another clear triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland.  And yet – it isn’t Macbeth, is it?  It does raise all sorts of existential discussion points my pal Ian and I mulled over in the pub afterwards, and it all comes down to the question of just who the guy on stage really is.  It is Macbeth?  In that case, the narrative has been changed, and Macbeth is not killed at the end.  But if it’s not, then who is he?  Are we actually watching the psycho-drama of a bloke with a Napoleon complex?  If he really believes he is Macbeth, and has his words and memories, is he therefore Macbeth?  What we are left with is the possibility that we are seeing a “Shutter Island” Shakespeare, and I’m not sure I’m completely okay with that.

But it doesn’t matter, because once again it’s got me thinking, and thinking hard, and that’s never a bad thing.

The incest tragedy? “King Lear”, Citizens’ Theatre, 27/4/12

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on April 29, 2012
Link to citizens' theatre

David Hayman, “King Lear”

My second King Lear in just over a year, after 2011’s fantastic Derek Jacobi version.  That was a very traditional take, all pagan standing stones and a venerable king thrown on the mercy of Dark Age gods.  This is something else.

It’s a sign of Hayman’s ambition as an actor that he felt ready to tackle a part most others shy away from until they are in their 70s.  Hayman is 64, ten years younger than Jacobi, and was therefore never going to be able to play Lear as the  petulant old man on the verge of dodderiness.  In keeping with Hayman’s oeuvre, this is a much more dangerous beast.  And that, I think, is the problem I have with this.

It’s a memorable production, a way of doing the play I’ve never seen before.  That’s the thing about Shakespeare: with stage directions that consist of “a heath” or “a tempest”, you can do much anything you want with it.  That has validated some absolute shite over the years that usually entails a company digging around in its military uniform box to come up with a mish-mash of all sorts of periods; the Citz’  “Macbeth” of a couple of decades ago which was set in a post-apocalyptic world complete with enormous wind machines blowing actors across the stage and a Lady Macbeth who ate Duncan’s heart springs to mind.  I’ve never seen Lear tackled this way, though, so off the straight and narrow.  Generally, it works, largely because of Hayman, and, though I’m not quite sure I loved it, I certainly applaud its verve and intelligence.

The problem is that Lear scares me.  This is a king who is a Glasgow gangster, a hard-drinking, fur-wearing, sexually abusive  ned who has been elevated to the crown because he is the badass of the country.  His treatment of Goneril (a voluptuous Kathryn Howden) is actually completely  repellent, and the revelation of his hundred knights as the drunkenly obnoxious, arrogant squad of utter yobs that would make you walk out of any pub they happened to be in (a decision, I feel, is a directorial error), means that, quite frankly, I actually have no sympathy for this guy.  His rantings against his daughters that, in any other production, are the tetchy ravings of a foolish old man 0n the verge of senility are here the explicit, chilly threats of a psychopath.  As such, I don’t care if he’s murdered by exposure on the heath or shot up the arse in a car outside an east end pub.  And what that does is it legitimises Regan’s and Goneril’s complaints against him and makes you wonder just what sexual abuse he has delivered on Cordelia that makes her so in thrall of him and what dark contracts he has made with Kent to earn his loyalty.

But there are big plusses.  Hayman is always fantastic and does what he does impeccably.  There are some great moments, and he is capable of making himself appear so much less than he is as madness descends; I have to say, though, I find his fractured, nasal delivery of many of those lines of madness curiously old-fashioned.  Paul Higgins as Kent is solid and generally convincing (though, again, his onstage suicide at the end is, I think, a mistake, pulling attention away from the death of Lear).  I liked Ewan Donald as Edgar (a great part for any actor) and Kieran Hill, while unconvincing as Edmund, is terrific as Poor Tom.

Shauna Macdonald as Regan is red hot sexy in a way that becomes outrageously vampish, the inappropriate fondlings of a child who has experienced crossed boundaries that befits the rampant sexuality of the whole production, and her death performance is something else.  As well as oodles of sex, there’s also buckets of blood, arterial spray soaking the stage; the blinding scene is torture porn aesthetic, Regan taking out Gloucester’s second eye with the heel of her stiletto shoe.  Lastly, the final image of Lear piled on top of all his dead daughters and wheeled out on a hospital bed is inspired: just what has this total bastard done to these girls to bring the whole family to this?  I’d never noticed before, but there is no mention of a mother in King Lear.  Where is his Queen?  And how did those girls replace her in this chilling man’s life?

I don’t quite warm to Lynn Kennedy as Cordelia, feeling she lacks the necessary gravitas to stand up to her father and sisters, but it was a stroke of genius to have her pregnant in the final act.  It occurred to me a full day after seeing the play.   Lear demands that he spend one month with Reagan and Goneril each.  The crisis comes before even a month has passed, since he has not had time to visit Reagan for the first time.  Given that France accepts Cordelia after Burgundy rejects her, and has therefore had only a few weeks with her, how then does she appear heavily pregnant?  Who is the father?  If it can’t be France (who we do not see again) – then who?

I’ve never read the play like this before.  Is it a sexual abuser’s tale?  Is this a take on Shakespeare in the mould of Tim Roth’s “The War Zone”?

This version of the play has disquieted me, and dammit that’s a good thing.  I’m not sure, though, if I can forgive it for not letting me weep at the awakening scene, or when Lear carries his hanged daughter onstage (here, he drags her like some piece of meat).  I’m not sure I want to notice just how self-centred all Lear’s madness is, how possessive he is of what he is to and has had with his daughters.  But, hell, do you know, maybe Hayman and artistic director Dominic Hill are just showing me what’s in the text.

And that is undoubtedly a good thing.  Shakespeare would surely have wanted that:  I’m just not sure I do.

ps  By the way, I have to say thanks to my lovely PGDE English class, who took me along on their night out.  In twelve years of working with student teachers, this is the first time that’s happened; sweeties every one, especially fetchingly floppy-haired Scott  who organised it all.  Thanks, guys, I had a lovely time.

“King Lear”, Donmar Tour, Theatre Royal, 11/3/11

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on March 12, 2011
Derek Jacobi as King Lear

Derek Jacobi as King Lear

Oh My Gods!  Well, it is a distinctly pagan play, so the plural is necessary.  But I’m just in the door, quarter past midnight, wired from  just having seen the best Shakespeare I have ever seen.  No lies.  Legendary.

Though its greatness has always been screamingly obvious, Lear is a play I’ve never quite got in a lot of ways – all that dissembling and madness, real or feigned, all that downright stupid gullibility about people’s motives.  I’ve seen three or four versions (including Anthony Quayle yonks ago), and it’s never quite gelled for me.  I got it tonight though, thanks to the beauty of the performances: at its core,  a simple tale is told of how age and dementia saps our parents of everything they once were, and how we cope with it in different ways.  In true Shakespearean fashion, though, what leeches away from a pompous old man is not only his sanity but his kingship too.

Where to begin.  The set is incredibly sparse; whitewashed boards underfoot, right, left, back, with one single prop the chair brought on for Lear to be wrapped up in, asleep after his trials in the storm, waiting to be woken so gently, so beautifully,  by his lost daughter.  The bleakness of the set creates different effects: first, it’s framed like a puppet theatre, perfectly appropriate given the horrible game the gods play with the characters; secondly, the drabness of the costume starkly contrasting with the set makes it seem like an animated film at times; and lastly, the bleached walls create the sense of pagan granite, as if the whole tragedy plays out in the shadow of the gods’ standing stones.

It is also brilliantly and viscerally realised, Gloucester’s eyeballs being stamped on and kicked by a gleeful Cornwall, his bloody sockets gaping far too convincingly at the audience.  And, of course, that final moment when Lear carries Cordelia onstage, howling at the moon – a scene which has failed to move me in every previous production I’ve been to – had me tearing up.  It was an exhausting experience.

The performances are uniformly excellent.  I particularly liked Alec Newman’s Edmund, all cocky nastiness and wide boy opportunism, and Paul Jesson (who I saw do an excellent Willie Loman in Edinburgh a few years back) as an erudite, compassionate and ultimately convincing Gloucester.  Gina McKee is predictably perfect as Goneril, including a lovely moment when she grabs Albany by the balls and threatens to rip them off to assert herself as the driving force in the marriage.

But Lear is about who plays Lear.  Derek Jacobi is, of course, a “national treasure”, which means he’s done some fantastic stuff for the canon (who doesn’t know “I, Claudius”) and some pretty dire things to pay the electric bill (Scrooge in that bloody awful Sony Christmas ad?).  My pals and I were all a wee bit doubtful about whether he could carry it off – doubts he expressed himself – but we’d read glowing reviews so thought it would be okay.

Okay?  He was monumental.  Commanding and spry at the beginning, full of petulance and whim and spite, the stripping of his outer layers reveals a fascinatingly vulnerable old man, desperately hanging on to values that are cruelly out of date in the world of his acquisitional elder daughters.  I really did believe the madness, twittering and capering about the stage like an unruly patient in an old folks’ home. And that scene of awakening: god, it was perfectly judged, the sleepiness rising off him like mist on the moors, that “where am I?” moment we have all experienced magnified a millionfold.  I have seen some magnificent performances on stage – Tim Piggott Smith as Salieri in “Amadeus” always springs to mind – and this was up there with them, if not way out in front.  It was one of those moments that defines a career: I hope his Lear is always mentioned in the same breath as any of the “greats”.

Unforgettable and absolutely perfect theatre.